“If only the Republican Party in Oregon would abandon its stubbornness on life, we could succeed in this state.” Pro-life Oregonians are long familiar with this sentiment. For whatever reason, such a view has been resilient despite little, if any, evidence to back it up.
In four out of the past five gubernatorial elections, Oregon Republicans have nominated candidates who, to varying degrees, are better categorized as pro-choice than pro-life. None of those candidates — Knute Buehler, Bud Pierce, Chris Dudley, or Ron Saxton — found political success in the statewide race. Looking back to high profile races since 1996, Oregon Republicans have had very little success at the state level with two notable exceptions, Gordon Smith for U.S. Senator in 1996 and 2002, and Dennis Richardson for Secretary of State in 2016. Neither Senator Smith nor Secretary Richardson emphasized their pro-life positions in their successful races, nor did they hide the fact that they considered themselves generally aligned with the pro-life perspective.
What can we deduce from the empirical evidence as opposed to the conventional wisdom? First, we ought to have some humility about our conclusions because, although we are looking at more than twenty years of history, there are unique factors in every race — the quality of the candidate, the quality of the opponent, national issues in the backdrop, other key state level issues, and ever-evolving voter views, among others.
There are plenty of pro-life candidates who have failed to win, despite the exceptions noted above. But, we do know that in the past twenty-two years, the only Republicans to win a high profile statewide vote were pro-life. That is not simply because there has been a dearth of pro-choice Republican candidates.
A reasonable hypothesis is that any incremental gains Republicans may get from pro-choice voters by nominating a pro-choice candidate are erased and potentially eclipsed by the number of pro-life voters who refuse to vote and volunteer for that candidate. The belief that the pro-life position stops a large number of non-Republicans from supporting Republicans in Oregon carries a major assumption: that the pro-life viewpoint is the critical point of disagreement those voters have with Republicans. Empirical evidence from the last two decades does not support that conclusion.
It is time to move beyond endless discussion of whether the GOP should push more pro-choice candidates for the sake of electability. Instead, our focus should move toward how to help pro-life candidates notch more statewide victories. We should be educating and bringing in voters of all parties who can support a candidate who is willing to protect and serve all Oregonians, including those not yet born and the elderly. The stakes are too important when it comes to life to do otherwise.
[Patrick De Klotz is an attorney, former Republican candidate, and board member of Oregon Right to Life PAC.]